Aaron Gregory’s 1951 Chevrolet pick-up, Memphis Hell, is the kind of car that gets blu-tacked to bedroom walls. An unlikely combination of Chevy cab, Holden Rodeo chassis and a VP Commodore driveline, the ute is the product of hundreds of hours of the most talented hands in the country. Blending influences from hot rodding, kustom and mini-trucking the car has been featured and acclaimed by icons like Street Machine, StanceWorks and Fuel.
The aired-out, V8 rumbler has been cut, grafted, shaved, smoothed and dropped. The tray of the step-side ute could be filled with the trophies it’s collected since it was first displayed at MotorEx in 2012. Aaron’s passion for cars didn’t start from the nursery or even in his teens. The son of a panel beater, the hours spent handing spanners to his old man sent Aaron running for the water.
“I discovered at an early age I was good with using my hands,” says Aaron. “But I was like, ‘I’m not doing what dad wants to do’. I am not going to find nuts and bolts in the garage. I‘ll go do something else.“ Becoming an accomplished boat builder and racer, Aaron was at the top of his game. He travelled the world with the sport. “It was eat, sleep, breathe boats”. In 2002 at Canada’s Lake Erie for the sailing world championships, a chance sighting of a slammed Chevy Silverado filled his head with mini-truck dreams. Back home a dual-cab Rodeo was soon in the build, and Aaron was down the rabbit hole.
Stepping out of the sea and into the garage, a pedigree for fiberglass fabrication and design landed him a job at Holden. Aaron modeled cars in the Concept Design Studio– arguably one of the coolest jobs in the world. Making plenty of mistakes with the Rodeo, he graduated to the Chevy, which came to him as a bare cab, and even less once it returned from sandblasting. “I started with doors, the cab and front bonnet. A blank canvas.”Snapping up a cheap Rodeo roller and a 5.0 litre Commodore, it was clobbering time!
With a block and tackle in the garage, and a bit of muscle, Aaron set about grafting the elements of the car together, and the slow burn build began. Moving to Sydney in pursuit of a girl (now fiancee), he found himself working shoulder to shoulder with the late Laurie Starling, at NSW Central Coast’s iconic Chop Shop. “Originally the plan for was a $10K build. Low springs, cheap steelies. That spiraled out of control once I started working at the Chop Shop.”
With Laurie’s encouragement, the step-side was towed up to Sydney, and the idea of preparing the car for MotorEx in three months hatched. The pair had their work cut out. “As much as having one hours sleep a night hurt, it was worth it. I wouldn’t be driving this thing around if we hadn’t thrashed like that.” Laying rail, or kissing the sky, the car’s height is controlled by an Accu-Air e-level system. The bagged rear has a step up notch with a triangulated four-link to lay flat under the tray bed’s warm wooden running boards.
Under the custom Torpedo air cleaner covers a warmed-up 304 V8 sits in the shaved bay. A Harrop manifold, Holley carbies, a mild cam and pacemaker extractors give the car the lump to match the look. The rear is where the car stands apart. Starting from scratch it steps away from the commercial breadbox look of factory cars, the curves matching from front to back.
“The bodyline through the cab runs into the top of the wheel tubs. There is a lot of work in those curves. Nothing is straight, everything is fabricated.” With a Chevy front bumper and classic intimidating grille, the bonnet was drawn and quartered to get a perfect fit with the guards. The olive colour is homage to the car’s namesake; Memphis Belle, the legendary WWII B-17 Flying Fortress. “It’s not a race car, it’s not a burnout monster, it’s just a nice cruiser” says Aaron.
Memphis Hell is also the car that put the Chop Shop on the map and made its name with a high-end audience. “Building the Chev put us into the realm of hot rods and custom cars. It was a business card for the shop. It showed everyone who thought we weren’t grown up enough that we weren’t just a bunch of punk kids.” The Chevy is also a rolling tribute. When Laurie Starling was murdered in 2014, the pick-up would carry him to his funeral and to his final resting place. For Aaron and many others it carries heavy sentimental value.
“I will always have an attachment to it because of the amount of hours I spent on it with Laurie. He was always there standing beside me, helping me work on it. It was his idea to build it for MotorEx. If he hadn’t pushed me to get it done, it wouldn’t be what it is.” For five years a complete car, the ute takes Aaron from Sydney to Melbourne every Christmas, and is used as a daily for weeks at a time. “My favourite thing is its drivability. I am blown away by how well it handles. It was built to drive and abuse, not be wrapped in cotton wool.”
One of the car’s secrets, its paint code, was let go by Aaron recently. BMW Messing Metallic is the unique olive/brass that ornaments Memphis Hell’s heavy curves. Aaron isn’t worried about someone replicating his work, though.
“Go for your life, you’ll always be second.”
We think he might be right.